35 Years with the CIA: Enemies, adversaries and threats to freedom

35 Years with the CIA: Enemies, adversaries and threats to freedom
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Over 35 years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency hired me to become a case officer. I just retired after returning from the last of nearly a dozen field assignments, and it's a time to reflect. 

After training in tradecraft to conduct the full gamut of clandestine operations in the foreign field, I headed immediately to Central America, the locus of President Reagan’s Cold War pushback against Soviet efforts to gain a mainland foothold close to the United States. The Castro regime ­— still in power today after 58 years and ranking third only after China and North Korea among oldest extant dictatorships — had long been a Russian surrogate. The epicenter of U.S. foreign policy was Marxist Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua, but East-West confrontation was also felt regionally.

U.S. support enabled patriotic Nicaraguans to force Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to hold elections. Opposition newspaper publisher Violeta Chamorro won; Soviets, Cubans and Sandinistas lost.


That success, together with the defeat U.S.-supported mujahideen dealt the Soviets in Afghanistan, Cubans’ rejection of Castro through mass defection to Miami, a “meddlesome" Polish pope, an Iron Lady, a visionary chancellor in Bonn, Solidarity in Poland and hard-won solidarity in the West, spelled the demise of a decaying nomenklatura in the Kremlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and dissolution of the USSR in 1991 ended the Cold War, but by no means challenges to peace and freedom.

Radical Islamist terrorism flexed its muscles in the 1990s and surged to its al Qaeda-perpetrated apex on 9/11. Counterterrorism became priority number one, specifically preemption of terrorist attacks. At the same time, Vladimir Putin-led Russia regressed into Soviet Union lite. Putin’s Russia retained its nuclear arsenal and projected power and influence internationally, occupying territories in Georgia, invading Crimea and intervening in Syria. The Putin regime also prioritized cyber warfare, an equalizer of sorts, against the U.S. and the West.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) became a U.S. intelligence community priority and led to the Iraq War in 2003 and its enduring fallout. Proliferation heightened concern about rogue state North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, not to mention that of theocratic state sponsor of terrorism Iran.

Counternarcotics was a top priority in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly in Latin America and much of Asia — American dopers a lucrative market. Wherever illegal drugs were cultivated, narcos harvested official corruption, undermining the rule of law and weak institutions. Colombia’s narco-terrorist Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was essentially defeated by President Alvaro Uribe’s courageous leadership after nearly a half century of murder and mayhem. His successor opted for negotiations in Cuba to grant political legitimacy to the FARC for official disarmament.

Chinese students’ quest for freedom shortly before the Berlin Wall fell got them massacred in 1989 in Tiananmen Square, its mere mention now forbidden. The Chinese Communist Party leadership showed no less decisiveness in systematically stealing U.S. intellectual property — and in turn American jobs and defense technology.

It was a privilege to work against enemies, adversaries and threats to freedom, peace and prosperity in many countries, and I am proud of what we accomplished. For those who pine for the clarity and unwritten rules East-West confrontation putatively assured, don’t. Survival of the Soviet Union might have perpetuated the perception of a bipolar world, but it would not have precluded the emergence of al Qaeda, the Islamic State or WMD proliferation, or for that matter intensification of genocidal regional conflicts, international organized crime and other scourges.

The U.S. and allies face grave challenges around the world, and we always will, ranging from sneak terrorist, nuclear and cyber attacks to foreign espionage operations against us at home and abroad, conventional warfare and anti-Western propaganda. Every thriving democracy’s mere existence is inherently a threat to totalitarian regimes and their leaders. All of the dated foreign threats were grave, all current ones formidable and to be countered, neutralized, defeated and in some cases annihilated — yet in hindsight none was existential.

Ambivalence about freedom (America’s core value), unmerited over-confidence in the state to govern wisely and forfeiture of individual responsibility do constitute an existential threat. Thomas Jefferson was not looking over the horizon when he warned fellow Americans that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Craig Osth served in CIA as a case officer, to include seven Chief of Station positions in five regions of the world. His first novel, Preemptive Retribution, will be available in 2018.